Industrial relations

Orders of the Day — Channel Tunnel Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:30 pm on 3rd February 1987.

Alert me about debates like this

'The operators of the tunnel shall be required to submit for approval to the Secretary of State a procedure agreement for the negotiation of disputes between the management and persons employed in the tunnel; and that agreement will require to include a form of contract for employees denying the right of industrial action and an appeal on unresolved grievances to an independent tribunal.'.— [Mr. Teddy Taylor.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Southend East

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I hope that the Government will be able to make some concessions towards the principle of this new clause. It is basically quite simple. It suggests that there should be a procedure agreement for those employed in the tunnel which would ensure, first of all, that there was no entitlement to take strike action of a disruptive nature and, secondly, that there should be provision for an appeal on unresolved grievances to an independent tribunal.

Hon. Members may ask what is it about the operation of the Channel tunnel that is different from other forms of transport, where there is no such requirement about strike action? There is a world of difference between the Channel tunnel and the ferries, railways, airports or any other form of transport. The organisation of a disruptive strike on transport such as rail, air or ships is a lengthy process. Those who use such forms of traffic have the opportunity to prepare for the disputes and there is an opportunity for action to be taken in the courts under the industrial relations legislation, if that is possible..

There is another major difference in that there are usually other alternative means of transport available. If the Channel tunnel project is successful, the tunnel will change that pattern dramatically. For a start, the operators of the tunnel claim that about 50 per cent. of cross-Channel traffic will have to go through the one artery. The second difference is that the alternative form of transport— the ferries— will undoubtedly be decimated if the tunnel goes ahead and attracts the business that it hopes to achieve. The third difference is that one or two key personnel working in the tunnel could bring traffic to a sudden halt by strike action or a work-to-rule.

However, it is fair to say that we must safeguard the interests of employees in the tunnel. How can that best be achieved? The best way to achieve that would be through a sensible procedure agreement such as we have with one or two of the essential public services. That would ensure that justice was given to the employees by means of binding arbitration, binding on employees and the operators.

If we do not have such an arrangement, a strike could have a devastating effect on trade between Britain and Europe. We know that there is considerable trade in both directions across the Channel although, as a representative of the United Kingdom Parliament, I find it sad that there is now a balance of payments deficit of more than £10 Channel Tunnel Bill 872 billion in manufacturing trade which would almost justify us having two tunnels in one direction and only one in the other direction.

A considerable volume of trade crosses the Channel. If there was a danger of that trade being disrupted by industrial action on the part of a small group of people, that could have a serious effect on the economy. I hope, therefore, that the Government will accept the principle of the clause and that the operators will take every possible step to ensure that a procedure agreement is made with the employees which would not permit the use of strike action, but which would allow appeal to binding arbitration if there was a genuine unresolved grievance. Without such an agreement there could be serious damage to this country if industrial action were taken. I hope that the Minister will accept the principle of the clause and at least undertake to discuss it with the promoters.

Photo of Mr Peter Snape Mr Peter Snape , West Bromwich East

We all know the idea of industrial relations held by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor). He believes that management should tell people what to do and the people at the receiving end should do it. That is his idea of an industrial relations system of negotiations. The Opposition are less than impressed with the new clause.

I can never understand the argument waged by the antitunnellers. On the one hand they claim that the Channel fixed link will be an economic disaster. They say that it will fail in no time at all. The hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) has been saying that in this Chamber and in various press releases for as long as I can remember or at least since June last year.

If these Jeremiahs and prophets of doom are correct, what are they worried about? Why should we be worried about industrial relations? If they are right and the project is to collapse, presumably the cross-Channel ferries will carry on with their cosy quasi-monopoly and things will continue as before. No doubt the hon. Member for Southend, East and the hon. Member for Thanet, South will be highly delighted at that. If they are wrong, however, they are trying to tie industrial relations for this one project in a way that industrial relations are not tied elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Southend, East will be aware that long-term discussions and negotiations are taking place between representatives of the railway unions and representatives of Eurotunnel. I would have thought that that was the place where such matters should fairly be conducted. Whatever else the Chamber is, it is not normally the place where we conclude industrial relations agreements on the part of private enterprise companies. Again, we can only imagine the indignation of the hon. Member for Southend, East who is normally incapable of passing the time of day without using at least three "disgracefuls" and one "minor catastrophe" if the Opposition proposed regular and binding arbitration on the nation's private sector. I would not have thought that such a proposition would commend itself to too many Conservative Members and certainly not, in normal circumstances, to the hon. Member for Southend, East.

Goodness knows what the hon. Member for Thanet, South would say. He would probably make the same speech once again, warning us all of doom, disaster and 40 days and 40 nights of flooding if the Minister rejects the clause. Although I do not know the views of the hon. Member for Thanet, South about the new clause, I can imagine his outburst of ire if the Opposition proposed a no-strike deal and a system of binding arbitration among the highly paid technicians of TV-am, to mention but one private sector company in the United Kingdom. We would be told, quite rightly, that such matters are not negoitable on the Floor of the House and that we should keep our noses out of industrial relations between a private sector company and its employees. I can only take that undelivered advice from the hon. Member for Thanet, South and pass it with my compliments to his hon. Friend the Minister. I hope that the Minister, who does not fall too often for the blandishments of his hon. Friends the Members for Southend, East and Thanet, South, will kick this new clause as far into touch as it deserves, with the wholehearted support of the Opposition.

Photo of Mr David Crouch Mr David Crouch , Canterbury

I wonder if I can make a small intervention in this private debate. I have always been in favour of the tunnel, knowing all its difficulties and disadvantages. The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), who has been attacking my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor), has painted him in black terms. He is not as black as that. My hon. Friend and I often disagree about matters in Europe and so on, but for once I felt that my hon. Friend was saying, "The tunnel is going to be built so we had better make a good job of it. Let us see that the trains run on time." Perhaps my hon. Friend is not the best advocate of how to avoid strikes in the middle of a tunnel, or even at the beginning or end of a tunnel. However, his new clause advances what I thought was a helpful suggestion.

Whether my hon. Friend the Minister thinks that it is possible to implement that suggestion is another matter. It might be difficult to implement. However, the aim and ideal of keeping the through passenger trains and through freight trains running on time and in good order is a good objective. I congratulate my hon. Friend on trying to help us through a difficult patch in the tunnel.

Photo of Dr John Marek Dr John Marek , Wrexham

I should say first that I am a sponsored member of the National Union of Railwaymen. I will not have to say that again, if I intervene later.

I hope that this mischievous clause is resisted by the House because it deals with something that should not be decided by the House. It should be decided by the management and employees concerned. There are no-strike agreements on occasions, but those occasions are when there has been agreement between the employees and the management. On a slightly different plane, although there are problems with widows' benefits, the police by and large are happy with their rates of pay. That is not precisely analogous because the job entails that the police cannot go on strike. However, they have an agreement with which the country is happy and with which the employees are happy. The armed services have the same type of agreement.

I hope that the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) will withdraw his new clause and seek to use his influence with the management, so that when the tunnel is running the management can come together with the employees and voluntarily agree a no-strike agreement. At the end of the day, in a free country, if we cannot voluntarily agree that and we insist on passing it in the House, I fear that we do not have a free country any more.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Aitken Mr Jonathan Aitken , South Thanet 7:45 pm, 3rd February 1987

The concept of no-strike agreements in essential services is gaining attention and perhaps support in the country and certainly on Conservative Benches. Therefore, the clause of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) does not deserve to be so lightly dismissed by the Opposition.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) made what is a familiar point to me, about how it is sometimes necessary to argue for what will happen to the tunnel in the short term and produce one set of arguments and then to look ahead at what might happen in the longer term. I do not regard those two positions as contradictory in any way. My view has always been that the tunnel, in the short term, will go bankrupt and that at some later stage it will be rescued. In the course of the rescue it will be possible to operate the tunnel much more cheaply as a result of having written off the unfortunate equity investors' investment. Thereafter, with the capital costs written off, it will be possible to run the tunnel very competitively, although the process may be repeated more than once and there may be a second bankruptcy and a second rescue.

Once the tunnel is built, I believe that one day it will operate and succeed. That being the case, one should look beyond what I think will be the miserable next five years or so and ask what would be the conditions in which we would like to see the tunnel being run in the event of it becoming the main artery of our communications to Europe. If it is our main artery to Europe, we should treat it as a strategic investment.

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn , Sheffield Central

The hon. Gentleman has suggested that capital should have the right to strike in the tunnel but that we should deny the people who work in the tunnel the right of industrial action if it should become necessary. The hon. Gentleman's scenario is that the tunnel will collapse in five years because there will be a strike of capital, but he is arguing that we now have to control the workers and make sure that they have no right to withdraw the only thing at their disposal, their labour.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Aitken Mr Jonathan Aitken , South Thanet

I have some sympathy with that position—at least I understand it—and I would certainly like to see any no-strike agreement being mutually negotiated.

The reality of the industrial relations suggestion is that at this moment it is somewhat far-fetched. Nevertheless, one should look forward to the day, 30 years or so from now, when the tunnel will have to be regarded as a key strategic interest of Britain when it may be our main arterial link with Europe. If that is the case, the idea that the same industrial relations rule can easily apply to that as apply to TVam or any other company that is operating in the private sector, is not realistic.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East may be ahead of his time. However, although much water may pass under the bridge and many bankruptcies within the tunnel may lie in between, if the tunnel is going to he as pivotal a link with Europe as the optimists predict, we should one day examine a clause such as this.

Photo of Mr David Mitchell Mr David Mitchell , North West Hampshire

The Government cannot accept this new clause, as both the prognosis that it implies and the remedy that it offers are mistaken. However, I am fascinated that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) is anxious to put Eurotunnel in a preferential position compared to its competitors, which have to manage their industrial relations competently. My hon. Friend painted a lurid picture of the Channel tunnel being so successful and ruthless that it will drive the ferries out of business and control the straits of Dover. As a result, he envisages the trade and economic life of Britain being under constant threat of strangulation.

My hon. Friend's predictions of total dependence on the Channel tunnel are grossly exaggerated. Eurotunnel's forecasts, which the opponents of the project criticise as optimistic, suggest that the tunnel would capture one third of the cross-Channel unitised freight and less than 8 per cent. of the non-unitised freight. That means that 66 per cent. of the unitised freight and 92 per cent. of the non-unitised freight could continue to cross the Channel even if the tunnel service was disrupted. I am sure that those existing modes would rapidly take up any slack caused by the events to which my hon. Friend has referred.

It will be for Eurotunnel to decide whether to negotiate with its employees and their representatives suitable procedures for the settlement of disputes. It would be for the parties to consider whether any such agreement should preclude the right to take industrial action in return for independent arbitration. But if they do decide to include such a condition in their agreement, it would be because both sides are satisfied that it would be in their best interests. A no-strike and compulsory arbitration agreement, freely negotiated, would not require a clause in the Bill to permit it to operate. I hope that my hon. Friend will see the force of these arguments and withdraw his clause.

My hon. Friend claimed that the Channel tunnel was different because, with other forms of transport, there is a certitude of notice. Commuters from Waterloo last week were not especially conscious of the degree of notice they were given. I have recollections, as do other Members of this House, of ferry ports and even airports where strikes have occurred at very short notice. I do not think my hon. Friend has researched that part of his argument quite as thoroughly as he normally does.

I hope I will not damage the reputation in his party of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) when I say that his argument that this sort of thing ought to be decided by management and employees is one with which I wholly agree. As to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) fantasising about multiple bankruptcies, the only things missing this time were the references to the Japanese, the Iranians and other middle east people who are going to put their money into this project and lose it.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Southend East

I did not find the Minister's reply very convincing, but I think he is enormously underestimating the damage to the economy if, as we now hear, with the help of some public funding from the European Investment Bank, this project goes ahead and is disrupted by small groups. I am also sorry that he has not given even an indication to the promoters that he would personally favour a clause of this sort to protect the travelling public and reduce their inconvenience. However, it is quite clear that there is no support for this proposal in the House. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.